Penman No. 286: Bringing Science to the People

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Penman for Monday, January 15, 2018

 

JUST BEFORE the Christmas break, I had a chance to speak to three different groups—the local media in Iloilo, the Philippine Genome Center in UP, and the Philippine Information Agency—about popularizing technical information, of the kind produced by academic and government institutions, especially in their research.

This has been one of my lifelong advocacies, being a frustrated scientist who, as a PSHS graduate, traded Industrial Engineering for English at UP. I figured that the next best thing I could do for science was to help scientists let people know about their work, given that, as I often point out, we lack a scientific culture—a rationalist mindset—in this country.

I told them that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Bringing science into the national discourse becomes even more important when we consider the information environment in which we live today—an environment of fake news, alternative facts, and post-truths, an environment where loud and forceful opinion (often expressed in tweets and Facebook posts) seems to take precedence over quiet facts and careful inquiry, and where “likes” and “retweets” take the place of scientific verification. Throw in superstition, ideology, racism, sexism, and a recipe of other political, social, and cultural factors, and you are going to have a very hard time figuring out where the truth lies at the bottom of a very murky pot.

That’s why we have to bring science within the grasp of ordinary citizens, not only to educate but to empower them, because ignorance disempowers. People fear what they cannot understand, and there are those who will deliberately confuse the arguments and make them incomprehensible to people so they can be more easily misled and driven to false conclusions. Those who deny the Holocaust and climate change are not merely expressing an opinion, as they of course are free to do; but they are also enabling destructive processes that could result in social and physical catastrophe for others.

People—even media—often mistake science for numbers, gadgets, laboratories, and incomprehensible formulas, but we have to remember that—through the scientific method—it’s really a way of looking at the world and making things happen, guided by reason, observation, and experimentation. In other words, it’s a guide to making choices.

A few years ago, there was—and indeed there continues to be—a raging controversy over GMOs or genetically modified organisms and their possible impact on our food, our health, and our economy. When scientists at the University of the Philippine Los Baños tried to propagate a GMO variety of eggplant they called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) talong, they met with fierce resistance from some civil-society groups who warned that UPLB was in the pocket of a big multinational firm to promote a product that could only have disastrous effects on Filipinos.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the UPLB scientists to prove that Bt talong was safe, did not require harmful pesticides, and would bring tremendous economic benefits to Filipino farmers, opponents succeeded in securing a Supreme Court order to stop field testing on Bt talong. The order was met with profound dismay from the scientific community, and while it was later reversed on a technicality, the episode showed how contentious and how political such seemingly simple matters as which eggplant to plant and to eat could be.

Today, once again, we have a controversy brewing in the media, around the issue of Dengvaxia vaccine, said to have been given to huge numbers of Filipino children without adequate safety testing. So the question is, was it a scam meant to enrich a corrupt few, or just sloppy science? Or is there a reason beyond public safety for raising this issue now?

There have been and will be many more, and much larger, public debates that will engage both science and politics in this country. Some may strike at the core of some of our most deeply held beliefs and presumptions. Can the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant be safely rehabilitated and utilized? Can we use modern incinerators to solve our waste problems? Is there really such a thing as responsible mining, and how can it be undertaken?

Will we simply believe the politicians, the activists, the bankers, and the generals, or should we rely on science to establish the truth, whatever the consequences of the truth may be?

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(Photos from http://www.up.edu.ph)

Penman No. 217: We Were Young Together

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Penman for Monday, September 18, 2016

 

I HAD the honor of being asked to speak at the 50th anniversary reunion of my Philippine Science High School batch (we chose to celebrate our entrance year, 1966, fearing that there’d be fewer of us to gather in five years). It was, I joked, the valedictory I never got to deliver, for reasons that will be shortly obvious. You’ll forgive the chest-thumping; every high school has a right to think it’s the best on the planet—perhaps some more so than others. Herewith, an excerpt:

I’ll begin with a shameless boast, and the boast is that over these past four decades, I’ve won quite a few awards and prizes for my work as a writer and teacher. But none of them has given me as much pride and pleasure as the knowledge that once upon a time in 1966, for one brief shining moment and for some miraculous reason, I topped the entrance exam to the Philippine Science High School.

It was a fleeting glory, and if I ever imagined myself a real genius I would be quickly disabused, because as you all know, after our first year, my grade in English was 1.0 and my grade in Math was 5.0. Only the kindness or perhaps the embarrassment of our administrators persuaded them that I was worth giving another chance and putting on probation, a break I’m forever thankful for.

I have never felt in more distinguished company than yours. Individually and collectively, you are the smartest people I have ever known, and it has nothing to do with PhDs or awards or high positions in government and business or least of all material wealth—although I’m sure we could all use a little more money. I know that I can sit with anyone of you and have an intelligent and funny conversation about anything from interstellar travel and Dutertean diplomacy to hugot lines and Pokémon—well, maybe not Pokémon.

Long before buzzwords like “world-class” and “globally competitive” came into fashion, there were smart kids who passed an entrance exam that decimated whole regiments of lesser beings, leaving a few good boys and girls standing after the slaughter, calmly noting the distinction between cousins and cosines, avocados and Avogadro, halitosis and mitosis.

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Hey, these kids were us—gangly, smelly (after a good day’s work at the biology garden, or the agawan-base arena), cocksure in the classroom, and curious as hell about the opposite sex. Not surprisingly, boy-girl questions dominated the school’s philosophical life.

“What Is a PSHS Boy?” asked the Science Scholar ca. 1969, and the soul-searching answer came (courtesy of someone who should have known—a PSHS girl): “A PSHS boy is a new sociological specimen of the human race… a hardworking nekti achiever [who keeps] a well-tended garden near the bio pond…. a longhaired mod swinger around the campus [who] wears kooky sunglasses, stylish baggy pants, and necklaces… He crams love letters in his notebooks. When Mr. Mozrah asks him ‘What is social interaction?’, he recites his lovelorn adventures with Jennifer, Corrine, Paulette, etc….”

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This penetrating study naturally occasioned a companion piece, published a year later under the thought-provoking title of “What Is a PSHS Girl?”, written by an expert on the subject, a PSHS boy.

“A PSHS girl,” this savant said, “is a rare biological specimen… She is only emotional, temperamental and irrational sometimes (well, half of the time… would you believe almost always?). Anger is not a word in her dictionary. You see, her dictionary starts with ‘boy’… A PSHS girl is the reading type. She reads Emily Loring and the like.”

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It didn’t take too long for a PSHS girl—uhm, PSHS young woman activist—to trash that silly, bourgeois, sexist view. “Now is the time for awakening,” this budding feminist would write in the same Science Scholar just a year later. “Do you realize that today you are a mere tool of the man?… Our bourgeois-oriented society adds insult to injury by picking up things for you and opening doors for you—reminders of sexual disparity—the very chains you should set out to break.”

We don’t know how many chains were broken; some precious objects certainly were (er, windows, petri dishes, innocence, and rules). Talk about rules! A famous one—dated September 29, 1970, and issued by the PSHS Board of Trustees—decreed that PSHS scholars “remain single and be discreet about their boy-girl relationships in order to continue their studies at the PSHS.”

Perhaps another topic of passionate discussion—“Should Smut Movies Be Allowed?”—had something to do with this heated  state of affairs.

The guidance counselor warned: “If they only display the human body for art’s sake, then there’s nothing wrong.  But if what they show are the acts sacred to man and woman, and those which arouse man’s sexual instincts and cause him to do something about it, then definitely, smut movies should be banned!”

Not too definitely, a freshman objected: “In European countries, especially in Scandinavia, sex movies have become so ordinary that they now seem to be part of the people’s lives.  In the Philippines, there is indifference towards these movies.  The Board of Censors should allow more of them and let us see what the attitude of the public toward them will be in the future.” [Brilliantly said, young man, an answer truly worthy of a science scholar—we’re not watching smut movies, here, we’re watching popular attitudes!]

Ah, the times, they were a-changing.  “The opening of the intramurals ushered in a new sight on our campus,” reported a sports columnist (a distraught boy) in the Science Scholar in 1970.  “Where once only boys were seen, girls have materialized…. The girls’ presence cannot be ignored…. In so short a period, many can be said to equal the boys at their own game. Complaints have been heard from the girls that the boys have been monopolizing both the basketball court and the ping-pong tables.”

That should’ve told us that the days of the Young Gentlemen’s Club and the Girls’ Club—no one had the gumption then to set up a Young Gay and Lesbian Club—were coming to an end. Some brazen soul in our freshman class organized the UBAG (United Boys Against Girls), but that didn’t last too long. Biology would teach boys that uniting with girls instead of fighting them was the more natural and pleasurable thing to do.

For a few of us after high school, life may have been a breeze, but for most, I’m sure it’s been an uphill climb, full of rough patches, and you were just as astonished as I was to find that a high IQ did not guarantee happiness or prosperity or success and may even have made things worse because of our more acute awareness of the meaning of things. We learned that the smartest people can make the dumbest mistakes in love, money, and politics, and that sometimes we just don’t know squay about the things that truly matter. I even learned that you could be happily married to someone from UP High.

Most important of all lessons and legacies, we learned to serve the people. Whether we grew up to be NPA cadres or CEOs or lab rats or barrio doctors, we knew that our high school scholarship had to be repaid in faithful service to community and humanity, employing the scientific, rationalist outlook that even those of us who strayed from S&T never quite lost.

We were young together, and we will grow old together. As we’ve all learned from life, it isn’t who leads at the start of the race but who finishes first at the end who wins—although again I suspect that in the race of life, we’d rather finish last.

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Penman No. 206: Keeping Faith with Science

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Penman for Monday, July 4, 2016

 

 

IT’S GRADUATION season, and in a departure from tradition, the College of Science at the University of the Philippines invited a humanist—yours truly—to deliver the commencement speech before its graduates last June 26. In my opening, I adverted to my stillborn ambition to become a scientist at the Philippine Science High School. Herewith, some excerpts from my talk:

This isn’t really about me, but about how people like me once had a dream like yours, of working in a lab wearing a white coat, finding Nobel-prizewinning solutions to global hunger and disease—in other planets if not this one. I never did become a scientist or an engineer, but I like to think that I’m still doing science—through creative writing.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

I like to think that I continue to have—as Edward Hubble told the Caltech graduating class in 1938, “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination.”

To be honest, I didn’t know that quote until I read it in an excellent commencement speech delivered just two weeks ago, also at Caltech, by the neurosurgeon and public-health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande, who reminded the graduating class that despite the demonstrated power and beneficence of scientific thinking, science today is under attack from many fronts—from pseudoscientists, from politicians, from all kinds of pundits claiming that climate change is rubbish, that vaccines are bad for your babies, that all GMOs are harmful, and that guns keep people safe. Dr. Gawande even titled his talk “The Mistrust of Science,” and pointed to the emergence of alternative “cultural domains” eager to advance their own agenda at the expense of scientific scrutiny and analysis.

This is not to suggest that science is infallible—it would not be science if it were—but rather that science, in all of its negotiability, has become a political football, especially among the impressionable and uninformed. In our recent experience, for example, statistical surveys and voting machines were wholeheartedly embraced when they favored certain candidates, and torn apart when they did not.

More than ten years ago, I shared with another graduating class an observation that sadly remains true if not even truer today: a disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education—yes, who needs algebra?—when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s dispense with values, with decency, heck, with the law itself, because none of those things really worked, did they?

It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the may pinag-aralan, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ferdinand Marcos had probably the best Cabinet in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do little against their President and his excesses.

In a sense, therefore, we are all culpable and complicit in creating this monster of the anti-intellectual. Call it, if you will, the revenge of the flunkers (among whom I suppose I could be counted)—if accomplished academics can be employed by despots and crooks against the people, then the people can hardly be faulted for distrusting them.

For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP alumni—the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallians are better at making money than we are.

But even these can put you out of touch. I have had friends in Malacañang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at Amazon. They see politics not as the opportunity to serve the people but to keep themselves in power. They take the law not as a means of dispensing justice, but as an inconvenience, an obstacle in the way of their popularity. Indeed a drug menace threatens our society, but there is still no drug more potent and more dangerous than power and its abuse.

We—scientists and artists—have to work together to find and to deploy an antidote to this creeping cynicism, to this wholesale surrender of sense and sensibility at the altar of political expediency and popularity. We may work in different ways, but we are both bound by our quest for the truth—which you approach by fact, and we approach by fiction.

You graduates of the UP College of Science have an additional responsibility: to keep faith with your mission and to hold true to your dream, not just for yourself and your family, but for your country and your people. Hold fast to science as a means not just of expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but also of using that knowledge to improve Filipino lives.

We know that science is often a long-term investment with no immediate and tangible benefits, and we can only hope that politicians can respect that, and can trust physicists searching for subatomic particles like the Higgs boson simply because, well, they’re there, somewhere, and could help us understand the universe better. We need brilliant young minds like that of a Nima Arkani-Hamed, exploring supersymmetry, or a Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman mathematician ever to win a Fields Medal.

But we also need scientists who can relate more directly and more immediately to society—scientists who can work for peace, for social transformation, for empowering the poor and the weak, scientists in the service of the Filipino. We need scientists with ambition and vision, but also with conscience and humility.

Let me return in closing to some words from Dr. Gawande: “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.”

I stand here to attest that even those like me who once dreamed of becoming scientists but chose another path in life know this to be true. In these times, when popular sentiment and demagoguery pose grave threats to reason and to the imagination, we need to remember to keep faith with science, as well as with art, to pursue our work despite and within an environment clouded over by politics, in this hour of great moral confusion. By continuing our work, we assert our freedom and our indomitable humanity.

Science and freedom go indispensably together. Science liberates the mind, and without freedom—without a society and a government open to new and contrarian ideas—knowledge cannot prosper. Science must help light the way forward in the resolution of key national issues. Is there proof that the death penalty really works as a deterrent to crime? Should all mining really be banned? Are nuclear plants and incinerators necessarily harmful? The answers may not always be pleasant or agree with our own beliefs, but only science will yield the truest ones.

 

 

 

Penman No. 197: Why the Arts Should Matter

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Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

FOR THE first time ever, the University of the Philippines held a Knowledge Festival in Tagaytay last week, showcasing the most significant and interesting projects being undertaken by UP scientists, artists, and researchers, with an emphasis on interdisciplinarity. I was asked to present a keynote talk on “Why the Arts Should Matter.” Herewith, some excerpts:

It has become practically a cliché to say that our lives, and certainly our learning, would not be complete without some appreciation of the humanities. Our tradition of liberal education has primed us to the necessity of cultivating the “well-rounded individual” schooled in the basics of various disciplines.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

But conversely, let me ask: Why indeed are the arts and humanities important? I’ll turn to conventional wisdom and quote what should already be obvious, from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities:

“The humanities enrich and ennoble us, and their pursuit would be worthwhile even if they were not socially useful. But in fact, the humanities are socially useful. They fulfill vitally important needs for critical and imaginative thinking about the issues that confront us as citizens and as human beings…. We need the humanities. Without them we cannot possibly govern ourselves wisely or well.”

What strikes me here is the word “govern,” which seems to me to be of utmost importance to us at this juncture of our history, and which is key to our topic today. The role of the humanities in our intellectual and cultural life is to enable us to govern ourselves wisely and well. They deal with issues and value judgments, with defining the commonalities and differences of human experience, hopefully toward an affirmation of our most positive human traits, such as the need to work together as families, communities, and societies. In sum, they help us agree on a common stake, based on which we can make plans, make decisions, and take action.

That notion of a common stake is crucial, especially on this eve of one of the most contested elections in our history. Despite all the predictable rhetoric (and the real need) for national unity, we find it difficult to unite beyond short-term political expediency because we remain unable to agree on our most common ideals—the national dream, as it were, or the direction of the national narrative. What is our story? Who is its hero? Are we looking at an unfolding tragedy, a realist drama, or a romantic myth? To go further, what is important to us as a people? Where do we want to go? What price are we willing to pay to get there?

These are questions that are answerable less by scientific research and inquiry than by artistic imagination and insight. It will be mainly the humanities and the social sciences that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities, as it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

This does not mean that scientists and engineers will have little or nothing to contribute to the crafting of this vision; I firmly believe they should, and that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Ours is an appallingly innumerate society. Most of our people do not know the simplest numbers that describe our lives, and much less what they mean. We are raised on concepts like the national flower and the national bird and the national tree, but even in college we are hard put to say what the national population, the national birth rate, or the Gross Domestic Product is, and why they matter. This innumeracy is balanced, sadly, by cultural illiteracy. Our notion of culture often consists of pretty images, pleasant melodies, theatrical gestures, and desirable objects.

We have much to do by way of cultural education, and artistic expression is a vital means by which this can be achieved. The arts are the key to those parts of us that reason and logic alone cannot reach.

But I came here this morning to go beyond the obvious, and to present an aspect of the arts that few national and even academic policymakers ever think about, and it’s this: the arts should matter not only because they’re good for the soul, but because they’re good for the body as well—taking the body to mean our economic and material well-being. In simple words, and moving from the philosophical to the practical sphere, the arts can mean big business.

The arts underlie what have been called “creative industries,” and these industries have made tremendous contributions to the economies of countries as diverse as the US, the UK, China, Japan, Brazil, and Thailand.

In 2009, when the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines initiated a focus group discussion on creative industries in the Philippines, they defined the sector as embracing “a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P661.23 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from 4.82 percent in 2006 to 7.34 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11.1 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to 14.14 percent four years later.

There seems to be a greater awareness on the Philippine government’s part of the economic utility of our artistic talent. In 2012, for example, RA 10557 was passed to promote a “national design policy” highlighting “the use of design as a strategic tool for economic competitiveness and social innovation.”

However, culture as a whole remains a low priority, often subsumed to other activities like tourism, entertainment, and sports. And it’s getting worse; very recently, cultural funding by the NCCA—the largest source of government funding for the arts—practically dried up because of onerous conditions imposed on cultural organizations in the wake of the pork-barrel scam, requiring them to undergo a tedious accreditation process by, of all things, the DSWD. Unlike many progressive countries, we do not even see it fit to have a standalone Department of Culture, so the DBM and even the DSWD can push the NCCA around.

We need to see the arts as more than a frivolous diversion that keeps on drawing funds without producing appreciable pay-offs, like an exotic and expensive pet you keep around the house, but rather as an area of strategic and profitable investment that will yield both moral and material dividends. Just as we need to develop more PhD-level scientists and researchers, we need to support advanced practitioners and theorists in the arts, as they have every capability to achieve world-class status, with the right incentives.

Let me end with a message—perhaps even a plea—to those who hold the purse-strings of our institutions. That journal, that play, that exhibit, that concert, or that workshop is always more than a line-item expense. Supporting and patronizing these artistic endeavors is the price we pay to understand ourselves in all our complex, and wondrously unquantifiable, humanity—and also, in ways you may never expect, to create new knowledge and new wealth in many forms.

 

Penman No. 193: Knowledge as Capital

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Penman for Monday, March 28, 2016

 

 

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines (UP) campus in Cebu City hosted the second presidential debate a couple of Sundays ago, and with education on the debate agenda, the setting couldn’t have been more appropriate. UP—so far, our only “national university” so designated—may be more than a hundred years old, but it continues to grow, particularly in places like the Visayas, Mindanao, and Central Luzon, where the demand for quality higher education is as great as ever.

Not too many people may have been aware of it, but in preparation for the debate—and indeed for the next national administration—UP President Alfredo E. Pascual commissioned a study by the university’s think tank, the Center for Integrative Development Studies (CIDS), to look into where we are in the regional scheme of things and how we can expect to catch up and compete with our more advanced neighbors.

Copies of the paper—titled “Knowledge-Based Development and Governance: Challenges and Recommendations to the 2016 Presidential Candidates”—were provided by UP to the staffs of the presidential candidates in advance of the Cebu debate. But knowing most politicians’ propensity to go for the sound bite and dwell on the personal, I tend to doubt if more than one or two of the candidates or their staffs found the time and the focus to read it.

It would be a pity if that indeed were the case, not only because of all the work that UP put into the paper (CIDS was backstopped by the offices of the President and the Vice President for Academic Affairs), but because of all the opportunities for development that we will likely miss, again, if our political leaders don’t heed what our top academic minds are saying.

The full text of the paper can be found here: http://www.up.edu.ph/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/20160315-UP-Knowledge-Paper-Final.pdf. For the benefit of our readers (and maybe the odd politician who will read this), I’ll unpack the technical jargon and get to the core of what the paper says and proposes.

It opens with an indisputable premise: Education is indispensable for economic development. More education means less poverty and income inequality, because it drives innovation and productivity, and helps people adjust to new challenges and opportunities.

But of course we already knew that. In a society like ours, we all look to education as the way out and the way forward, which is why our people slave for years overseas to put their kids through college. So sacred is education to the Filipino family that every candidate for public office, especially the Presidency, feels duty-bound to extol its virtues.

To be fair to the present administration, it’s put its money where its mouth is, for the most part. The study notes that “Since Benigno S. Aquino III assumed the presidency, government expenditure on public education has enjoyed annual increases. Out of the education sector‘s PHP364.9 billion budget for 2015, PHP43.3 billion was given to state universities and colleges—a 13.8 percent increase over the 2014 allotment…. Over PHP3 billion was made available for scholarships under SUCs and more than PHP2 billion for scholarships administered by the Commission on Higher Education. A total of PHP316 million (roughly 0.09 percent) was earmarked to fund research.”

That sounds good, but sadly it’s still not enough. The rest of our ASEAN neighbors spend an average of 5 to 6 percent of their GDP on education, but we try to make do with 3 percent. That’s why even our best universities lag behind their global and regional counterparts. The study notes that “In 2014, the University of the Philippines ranked only 8th out of the top 10 universities in ASEAN. In 2010, the Philippines ranked 89th in the global Knowledge Economy Index, far behind Singapore, which placed 19th.”

With all the new phones, computers, and call centers we see around us, we might be led to believe that the Philippines has become a high-tech haven, but that just isn’t so. (“We may be No. 1 in voice operations,” I once heard President Pascual say in relation to BPOs, “but were just around No. 9 in non-voice, which is where there’s more value-added. We need not just call center agents, but software engineers!”)

In its summary, the study observes that “Our level of technology remains low in quality and scale, and concentrated in low-productivity sectors. To catch up and move ahead faster, we need to raise our scientific and technological skills, which only better and more focused education can achieve.

“This calls for massive government investments in high-level knowledge capital—the so-called ‘suprastructure’ of economic growth. This human capital will create a knowledge-based economy driven not just by brawn but brains, tapping into one of our richest but least developed resources.”

In other words, and to put it plainly, we need more brainpower—more nerds, if you will—of the kind who can innovate, produce, do trailblazing research, and network with their global peers. That kind of knowledge can reap sizeable benefits for our economy, as it’s done for Singapore, China, Korea, and a host of other countries who’ve invested in their “suprastructure.”

But PhDs don’t come easy and don’t come cheap. UP argues that our government should have a plan to produce them systematically. The object of our educational system shouldn’t just be producing hordes of college graduates who can’t find good jobs, but graduates in fields and with skills that the economy actually needs. The best of them should be sent abroad for advanced degrees, and then brought home with sufficient incentives and an environment conducive to research. The UP paper goes even farther and recommends that in areas where we lack expertise, world-class professors and researchers should be enticed to teach here and work with their local counterparts, in the same way that Singapore was able to considerably shorten its learning curve.

While much of this will occur in science and technology, the paper wisely notes that “Because values are important in setting the right path to growth, the promotion of science and engineering should be closely integrated with the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities to ensure the holistic development of the Filipino.”

To spread the work and its benefits, the UP paper envisions a hubs-and-spokes model of development anchored on regional centers of excellence in certain fields—possibly even other national universities beyond UP.

There’s a lot more to be found in the study that was UP’s gift to the candidates—and thereby to the nation—but whether any practical good comes out of it will depend on the political leaders who govern our fortunes, and, ultimately, on us who vote them into office.

(Kindly note that as a “think paper” subject to further discussion, the study mentioned here does not necessarily reflect the position of the UP academic community as a whole, but rather of the researchers and offices involved.)